Blind Student

Before time pulls a fine, shimmering mist over my academic experiences, I must write from the perspective of the blind student. Though my studies pass beyond each graduation, I find myself in a new role, the teacher’s role, and my ideas about students are changing.

So, meet me at the door of all my classrooms, and let’s wander through the experiences of a student like me.

First, you’ll notice that I arrive early. I’m here a few minutes before you, running my fingers over the braille at the classroom’s entrance. Paranoid that I’ll enter the wrong class, I want to appear competent. Let’s walk through the door that our instructor has just unlocked. I’ll want to find a seat close to the front of the room. I’ll fold my cane, place my large schoolbag under the desk, and pull out my notebook and pen. Depending on the classroom’s lighting, I’ll either remove my shades or keep them on. I’m hoping for dim lighting; I’d rather take off the shades.

No doubt, our instructor will begin passing out a syllabus. Two things about this process will make me anxious: 1) I won’t be able to tell that the instructor is handing me a paper unless he or she announces this, and 2) I won’t be able to read the syllabus, since the instructor has probably printed it in size 11 or 12.

Of course, each circumstance has its exception. When I choose classes with an instructor I’ve experienced before, I can count on some measure of accommodation on the first day. In one such case, a Rhetoric & Composition professor printed my syllabus in size 24! When he placed it before me, I felt surprised and gratified. I immediately flipped through it, delighted that I could hold the paper farther from my face.

In most cases, however, I endure the first class without accommodation. I cannot expect instructors to intuit my needs before I introduce myself. After that first class, I hurriedly shove my books into my bag, whip out my letter from the Disability Resource Center, and attempt to catch the instructor in conversation.

Most professors are kind, willing to assist, and welcoming. I’ve never had an instructor refuse me accommodations. I tell them, “If there’s something on the board, I won’t be able to read it.” I say, “If you’re calling on me, you have to use my name—otherwise, I won’t know that it’s my turn to speak.” I explain, “Any materials you pass out in class need to be enlarged for me, to size 18, Times New Roman.” (I tell them how I hate Courier New, that it was handcrafted in Satan’s workshop as the bane of all visually-impaired students.) Finally, I tell them that I am excited for the class and that I readily speak up for myself. “I won’t let you ignore me,” I insist with a smile.

My professors ask me for basic reminders and offer benevolent disclaimers:

  • “Could you shoot me an email the night before the exam, so I’ll remember to print yours?”
  • “You’ll have to remind me to call on you—I might forget! And it will take me a while to learn everyone’s name.”
  • “I’ve never had a blind student before. I’m happy to help, but I might take a while to get used to what you need.”

“Don’t worry,” I want to assure them. “I’ll actively participate in class! I will be so talkative and engaged that you won’t be able to forget I’m here. I’ll muster enthusiasm for texts I don’t enjoy, attend carefully to your lectures, and attempt to make brilliant observations—all in the hope that you won’t forget to enlarge my tests or use my name.”

But of course, they forget. They show up on exam day with an armful of copies printed in size 12. They look at me with confusion or embarrassment and ask sheepishly, “Is there any way you could just use the regular copy?” Inclined to say yes, I learn to say no. I answer, “I’m sorry, that would be really difficult for me to read.”

When they don’t forget to enlarge my copy, they forget to bring it. They say, “Oh gosh, I left your copy in my printer! Let me just run to my office and get it!” Meanwhile, they don’t collect the copies they’ve already passed out. Around me, students begin the exam, and I wait for my test. My anxiety mounts—I’m painfully aware that other students are completing their exam while I don’t even have mine. I’m aware that it will take me longer to read the test. I worry that I won’t finish on time, not because of my reading speed, but because my instructor takes 20 minutes to dash to her office and return with my exam.

In these moments, I cannot panic, pontificate, or patronize. I cannot say, “Why don’t you put a sticky note on your computer, reminding you to print my exam in size 18?” Just between you and me, I can read size 14, but I’ve since learned this valuable lesson: when you ask for size 14, professors try to give you 12. They say, “Well, I mean—it’s close, isn’t it? Can’t you just make it work for today? I’ll print your next one larger, I promise. I won’t forget.”

Occasionally, the forgetfulness sparks a creative solution. A professor who forgets to enlarge poems for me begins reading them in a slow, sonorous voice. When he reads, I don’t miss the print copies; I easily follow the poem. His reading precipitates an excellent discussion and furthers my blatant preference for the oral approach to poetry.

Another professor rushes across the room to narrate scenes of a film for me. He crouches by my desk and whispers (not very quietly) into my ear, describing an important scene. I assure him that this isn’t necessary – the classmate sitting beside me excels at audio description – and, reassured, he hurries back to his desk.

When I feel frustrated with my professors’ absent-mindedness, I remember the inclusive efforts of a certain Dr. Rae. She treats me so well that I take five courses with her. After the first day of class, and across those five courses, she forgets to enlarge one assignment. ONE assignment. When she realizes her mistake, she insists on typing the homework, a piece of Old English prose that we must translate, by hand. I find it waiting in my inbox just two hours after class.

She doesn’t tell me, “You’ll have to forgive me—I’ve never done this before.” She doesn’t say, “Oh dear, I’ve left your copy in my office.” She says, “I have a disabled sibling; I know what it’s like. I’m going to do my best for you.”

She spoils me for other instructors. When they forget to accommodate me, I remember that she rarely forgets. I begin to measure them against her, thinking, “If she can remember, why can’t others?” Surely, she has the same workload, amount of courses, lists of names to memorize, and piles of articles to read. But I never have to fight for anything in her class. I never receive a sigh of frustration, confusion, or embarrassment. When the rest of the class easily navigates a text that hasn’t been enlarged for me, she understands my acute feelings of exclusion. And I suspect that she gets my bravado as well. She helps me feel the value of my whole self,  mind and body connected.

I intend to model myself on Dr. Rae. Already, I have adopted her circular classroom arrangement and short response papers. Now, I am waiting for my population of disabled students, so I can extend her fervent consideration to them. I cannot wait to accommodate!

Intimate with Print

When venturing in search of new (or used) books, the Serious Bibliophile requires a few essentials: canvas bags for carrying the books home, a bottle of water, a dedicated and equally bibliophilic companion, a list, and a lot of time. The canvas bags are necessary for two reasons: 1) they won’t tear when you cram them full of books of different shapes, and 2) they represent environmental consciousness. Using the cloth bags will help you resolve your eco-guilt from bringing home a dozen print books. The bottle of water will keep you hydrated as you make use of the ample time you’ve allotted for this session. When you want to go dashing down every aisle, whisking books off shelves with the irrepressible glee of a 5-year-old on a sugar rush, the list of titles to look for will help you to exert some self-control. The companion will also help you make use of your time; her enthusiasm for finding and reading the books you desire will the hours disappear quickly.

My most frequent book-buying companion is Katie, and she is meticulous about observing the rules above. We regularly schedule trips to one of Jacksonville’s largest used bookstores, our canvas bags, shopping lists, and protein bars in hand. If the trip to the bookshop occurs somewhere in a long day of errands, we have learned to eat before we step across the sloping threshold. Book-buying on an empty stomach is a dangerous business. Combine our crankiness from hunger with our desire to buy four times the amount of books our budgets allow, and we represent a serious threat to ourselves and all other customers.

Because I am a lover of literature – poetry and prose, drama and nonfiction – you might assume that a book’s content is the only thing that matters. However, accessing literature is a multi-sensory experience, an indulgence for the hands, eyes, and nose – as well as the mind.  The books I purchase are stories I want to read, in formats I can easily access. So, aside from interesting content, what am I looking for in a good book?

While shopping with Katie, we wandered into the Classics section in search of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I had read the book eight years ago, for my AP Language & Composition class, but I’d somehow lost track of my beloved copy. Katie found the card with “WOOLF” printed in large, blocky lettering, and began to scour the stacks for the book I wanted. She found several editions, published by different companies – their fonts, pages, and binding wildly varied.

Our process is a simple one: Katie pulls an edition off the shelf and hands it to me, I open it to check whether the print is easy to read, and Katie uses my observations to filter the books she passes to me. I rarely require books in standard large print (size 18), because I apply a collection of magnifiers, reading glasses, and bifocals to texts I read. For me, ideal print is dark against the page, not a spidery or blocky font. Fonts like Courier New that echo the look of a typewriter are a recipe for disaster, while seriffed fonts like Times or Garamond are easy on my eyes. (WordPress tells me that the font I’m using now is Times.)

The quality of the page is also important. Often, I prefer to shop for used books because the yellowing pages are easier for me to read. Bright white pages can be glary, making the letters difficult to distinguish. Yellowed pages, on the other hand, soften the glare of overhead lights and contrast well with most fonts. If the book has any markings in it, it becomes exponentially more difficult to read. Occasionally, I can read a text that has underlining throughout, but, if someone has highlighted in the text, forget it!

The book’s spine is worth considering as well; if the book does not open easily, it will be difficult for me to get close enough to the pages to read them. When I was younger, I used a dome-shaped glass magnifier to read print. Now, I prefer reading glasses with 10x bifocals; I don’t have to worry about wedging a heavy glass dome in between the pages, but I do need to get about two inches away from the printed text to read it. Since I regularly underline in books, I must be able to get close to the text.

Because of my necessary textual intimacy, I have to give all my books the sniff test. Unless a book smells appealing – musty, old, and well-loved or crisp, new, and papery – I am reluctant to read it. I once avoided a textbook for my Mark Twain course, because, when I got deep into the pages, I could only smell the acrid glue of the binding.

The olfactory pleasure of books prevents me from switching to an all-digital experience of literature. Arguably, many more books are available online as e-books and free texts, but I know how desperately I would miss that Good Book Smell. Plus, my tactile relationship to texts helps me to navigate them with ease. I often remember where a passage is located because I remember reading it halfway down the page, on the left side, in the second column. My spatial awareness of text on a paper page disappears when I switch to texts on my computer. Audiobooks, however, are a welcome addition to my library, and I enjoy listening to a book while following along in the print edition.

If you’re thinking that my preferences sound like a load of cumbersome specifications, you’re very close to the truth. It is certainly easier on my eyes when I have an audiobook doing the reading and I can simply skim the pages with a pen, underlining as I listen. Yet I continue to gravitate to the printed page, even in the absence of audio recordings. Something in the experience of curling up with a good book – my nose, without exaggeration, deep in the pages – conveys a coziness, a tranquil absorption. As my body performs the posture of reading, the book is a reassuring weight in my hands. Getting my fingers around the edge of a page, sliding my bookmark into place, drawing a thin bracket around a particularly moving passage – these gestures comprise the sensory pleasures of a revitalizing experience.